John Horgan is one of the most colorful and thought-provoking science writers of the last several decades. He defies pigeonholing and enjoys challenging conventional wisdom. In the best Socratic tradition, he has been a gadfly to the scientific community, constantly urging it to be more self-reflective and to strive for sober understanding of the scientific enterprise—its prospects, possibilities, and pitfalls.
I still stand by the thesis of The End of Science, that the era of truly monumental, paradigmatic discoveries has ended. In fact, the argument seems even more compelling today than it did 20 years ago when the book was first published. My guess is that some of the great remaining mysteries—How, exactly, did the universe begin? How did life begin on earth? Does life exist elsewhere in the universe? How does a brain make a mind?—will turn out to be intractable. But I hope I’m proven wrong, and we can certainly never stop trying to solve these mysteries. And even if I’m right about these huge mysteries, I’m still hopeful that science—and especially applied science—can improve our lives in countless ways by discovering better medicines, energy sources and so on.
You’ve been openly skeptical of fashionable trends in computer science, such as “Big Data.” What, really, is the problem with finding patterns in and drawing conclusions from Big Data, whether in commercial contexts or even in the pursuit of scientific knowledge? With regard to science, is this confirmation of your ongoing concern about the dominance of mere technicalities of science in the absence of novel, deep theory?
Big DataThe rhetoric of Big Data recycles that of chaos and complexity, two previous faddish fields that in The End of Science I lumped together under the term “chaoplexity” and criticized harshly. Advances in digital technology have been astonishing; they have transformed my profession, journalism, as well as science and other endeavors. But I get annoyed when Big Data boosters—like the chaoplexity folks before them—talk about computers as though they are magic wands that will instantly solve all our practical and intellectual problems. More.
On a personal note: I (O’Leary for News) have often criticized science writers as mere pom poms for “sciencey-ness.” And—let’s face it—many are. Journalism is supposed to be a field that encourages criticism, not adulation Science journalism lags in that area.
Horgan always struck me as different. For example, he correctly identified the multiverse nonsense as, well, nonsense. I’ve no objection in principle except that a mystic could have thunk it all up on his prayer mat six thousand years ago. So how did it ever get classed as science?
The big advance is that they finally lost the darn mat?
Those of us who think science is better represented by, say, the recent Pluto flyby are in Horgan’s debt.
Follow UD News at Twitter!